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From romantic tales of medieval knights and castles to the horror and destruction of World War II, Poland tells a complex story. Travellers are captivated and moved by its remarkable history of heroic resilience and tragedy, detailing its determined stand against communism and its now modern outlook and economy.
Poland was the country most devastated by World War II in Eastern Europe, losing about a quarter of its population and almost its entire Jewish community. The aftermath of the war greatly influenced the character of the country. Former Jewish centres in the cities and the concentration camps where the Nazis carried out their atrocities remain as the most stirring reminders of the nation's tragedies. Cities destroyed by the war had to be rebuilt from scratch and the many meticulously restored buildings and historic old towns are testimony to a proud and determined people.
Warsaw, the capital, was almost totally destroyed by the war and now presents an unusual mix of beautifully restored historic buildings, communist-era concrete structures, and modern fashion and consumerism. The maritime city of Gdañsk, home to the historic garrison at Westerplatte and the legendary Lenin shipyards, was the stage for both the beginning of the World War II and the disintegration of Eastern European communism.
But it is Krakow, the ancient royal capital that draws the crowds, rivalling the elegance of cities like Prague and Vienna. Having largely escaped the destruction of the war, it retains its medieval character: the Royal Castle, the grand Market Square, the old Jewish quarter, and the nearby Nazi death camps of Auschwitz are all steeped in historical importance.
The unspoilt Baltic coastline and the splendour of the rugged mountain ranges of the Tatras will impress outdoor enthusiasts, with a variety of activities and scenery to provide a peaceful and relaxing break from the intensity of the country's history.
Along with the legendary hospitality of Polish people, a sense of nationhood to which the Catholic Church is fundamental, and a strong musical and cultural sense of identity, its tourist infrastructure is flourishing and the country is experiencing a remarkable increase in the number of visitors to its shores.
When sightseeing around Poland you'll find all the hallmarks of European charm in abundance: alpine mountains, historic buildings, resplendent lakes, lush meadows, untainted beaches, and some fascinating albiet harrowing sites from the Second World War.
The capital of Warsaw was the first city to fall to Hitler and had to be almost completely rebuilt after the 1944 invasion. Parts of the Old Town were built to replicate the city as it had stood in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Historical Museum of Warsaw, a salute to the city's violent past, is a must. A visit to Poland would not be complete without a trip to the country's most significant wartime landmark: Auschwitz, Hitler's biggest and most notorious concentration camp.
About two hours north of Warsaw is the Bialowieza Primaeval Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is one of the last remnants of the European primeval forest which once covered most the continent. Further north visitors will find other rare vestiges of old Europe, like the Gothic Castle in Malbork, the largest and most impressive brick fortress in Europe. There are several other wooden and stone churches, temples and other impressive buildings throughout Poland's vast and glorious countryside, which can be traversed by bus or train.
The city of Krakow is the most popular tourist destination in Poland, and the city which suffered least during the war. The main attraction is the remarkably well-preserved medieval centre, but Krakow is a cosmopolitan, modern city boasting the wonderful mix between old and new which characterises the whole country.
The Old Town is an historic focal point, rebuilt in original 17th and 18th-century style following the war. The picturesque Old Market Square (Rynek) is at the centre, surrounded by restored buildings and colourful three-storey merchant houses with Baroque and Renaissance facades, lively open-air restaurants, art stalls, and the Historical Museum of Warsaw. Buskers, painters, and musicians provide entertainment, while cobbled streets and alleyways contain beautiful Gothic churches and palaces. The impressive Royal Castle was once the home of the Polish Kings while ramparts and watchtowers dot the medieval walls surrounding the old city.
The Museum of Warsaw is one of the best of the city's impressive array of museums. Its three storeys are crammed with fascinating exhibitions, covering every aspect of Warsaw's history and life from the city's establishment to the present day. It occupies almost an entire side of a square in Old Town, housed in quaint historical buildings and boasting 52 rooms with permanent exhibitions, four with temporary exhibitions, a cinema, a library, and a reading room. A special feature is a documentary film showing the destruction and reconstruction of the city, with footage shot by the Nazis during their calculated and systematic annihilation of Warsaw, and footage of the careful rebuilding after the war. The film is shown in English at 10am and 12pm from Tuesday to Friday, and at 12pm and 2pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Known as the Royal Way, this two-and-a-half mile (4km) route stretches from the Royal Castle in the Old Town to the stately King's Palace at Wilanów on the outskirts of the city. It bisects the central city from north to south, and is lined with galleries, museums, and historical buildings St Anne's Church. Along the way are the royal gardens of Park Lazienki with its lakes, peacocks, and charming 18th-century Lazienki Palace, which was the royal summer residence. A monument of the famous Polish composter Frederic Chopin stands in the park, with summer concerts held on the lawns. The Royal Way ends at the splendid Wilanów Palace which was modelled on Versailles, containing a museum and an art gallery called the Orangery.
The peninsula of Westerplatte saw the beginning of Second World War. A small Polish garrison heroically held out against the attack of seven days before surrendering to German forces, with the site now a towering memorial to the defenders. With only 180 Polish soldiers, they fought on knowing they had no chance of reinforcement or resupply. A small museum is accompanied by ruins of the barracks and guardhouses left from the shelling, standing harrowing and dilapidated in an otherwise picturesque setting reachable by bus. Surrounding scenery is best appreciated on a boat or bike trip.
Malbork Castle is the world's largest brick fortress and one of the most impressive in Europe. The Teutonic Knights built it in 1276 and slowly began to establish themselves as fearsome rulers, taking control of most of Poland until they were defeated at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The immense brick stronghold incorporates a system of multiple defence walls with gates and towers, guarding an interior of arcaded courtyards, chapels, a treasury, the Knights' Hall, and an armoury. The castle houses several exhibitions of tapestries, coins and medals, medieval sculptures, and weapons. During summer, the courtyard is used as a venue for sound and light shows. Guided tours are available and there are audio guides for those who prefer to explore independently, although the number of audio guides is limited.
Dating from 1257, the Central Market Square was one of the largest squares in medieval Europe and remains the social heart of Krakow. Surrounded by historic buildings, museums, and magnificent churches, the impressive expanse of flagstones is a hub of commercial and social activity. Flower sellers, ice-cream vendors, musicians, pigeons, students, and groups of tourists fill the square. The striking church of St Mary's is an impressive twin-spire Gothic structure while at the centre of the square is the splendid medieval Cloth Hall, its upstairs art gallery housing a collection of 19th-century Polish paintings and sculptures.
Wawel is a hill overlooking Krakow, upon which stands an architectural complex that includes Wawel Castle and the Gothic Wawel Cathedral. It was here that all the Polish kings ruling between the 14th and the 17th centuries were crowned and buried, and it lies at the heart of Poland's royal history. The Renaissance-style castle is now a museum, with visitors able to see the Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury, Armoury, and the State Rooms. Of the many chapels in the cathedral, the golden-domed Chapel of King Sigismund is the finest. The bell tower can be climbed for views over the city and to see the enormous 11 tonne bell. A number of different guided tours are available so check the official website listed below for details.
The Kazimierz quarter was the centre of Jewish religion, culture, and learning before the Second World War. Badly damaged during the Nazi occupation, it has been rebuilt so visitors can admire the historical architecture and get an experience of what daily Jewish life was once like. The area is enlivened by art galleries, kosher restaurants, and numerous cultural events. The Oskar Schindler Factory Museum is itself a popular tourist attraction in Krakow, dedicated to the memory of Schindler and the Jewish workers he managed to save from the death camps. The Old Synagogue is part of the Historical Museum of Krakow, where the collection of physical memories from the Kazimierz Jewish community is kept.
Situated in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, the Galicia Jewish Museum houses a permanent photographic exhibition which is extremely powerful. It documents the history and heritage of the Jews in the villages and towns of Poland, focusing particularly on the Holocaust. Poland lost almost a quarter of its population in World War II, and the Jewish community was decimated. The museum has a bookshop, while also hosting plenty of temporary exhibitions, special events, lectures, and Jewish music concerts. The Galicia Jewish Museum is often overlooked as a tourist attraction in Krakow, but is a worthwhile experience for people from all walks of life. Budget at least three hours to fully absorb the experience. Guided tours are available and there is a charming little cafe for refreshments.
The Galeria Grafiki i Plakatu (Polish Poster Gallery) is located in the old town district of Warsaw, housing the finest collection of graphic art and posters in Eastern Europe. Established in 1975, it now exhibits over 5,000 pieces of art, many displaying facets of Polish culture. Visitors will see theatre, music, and cinema posters, as well as Polish Solidarity political posters. The gallery also displays some iconic American, British, French, and German posters, and tourists may be excited to see classics like West Side Story, Moby Dick, and Dirty Dancing. Thankfully, the museum has a great selection of prints for sale.
The Piwnica pod Baranami is a Parisian-style cabaret house located in Krakow's old town, allowing tourists to experience and appreciate the culture, values, and ideals of the city. Created by Piotr Skryznecki in 1956, this bohemian underground cellar soon became a haven for local artists and intellectuals where they would indulge in one of Poland's favourite cultural pastimes: political cabaret. The Piwnica pod Baranami still functions as a cabaret house to this day with performances on Saturdays at 9pm remaining extremely popular, so book your ticket early. A highly recommended tourist activity in Poland, it's a great spot to begin an unforgettable Saturday night.
Bialowieza National Park is a heavily protected UNESCO World Heritage site. It guards the last remnants of the primeval forest that used to cover most of Europe at the time of the last ice age. The park is the last place on earth that tourists can see European bison, huge beasts that once roamed across the continent, living undisturbed in their natural habitats. An ecotourism destination of international repute, the nearby town of Bialowieza has launched numerous luxury spas and elite lodgings. Bialowieza National Park is a short train ride from Warsaw (two and a half hours) making it possible to visit the park on a daytrip, but it is best to spend at least one night in the area if possible.
Although still very much a well-kept secret on the mainstream tourist scene, Northern European travellers have been flocking to Sopot for many years for its gorgeous sandy beaches on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Primarily a beach resort and health spa town, Sopot buzzes every summer. Throngs of visitors walk along its famous wooden pier while enjoying the long sunny days and numerous restaurants, bars, and shops. There are a few other tourist attractions in the town, like a museum and a water park, but the beachfront is the highlight. With its vibrant nightlife and relative obscurity, Sopot is the perfect cheaper option for budget travellers and backpackers.
Poland's climate is moderate and temperate, characterised by cold winters and warm summers, with continental influences from the east and maritime influences from the west. The weather in Poland is highly changeable. There are, however, four distinct seasons, and spring and summer are usually lovely in Poland. Winters become increasingly severe inland from the Baltic coast, with January temperatures in Warsaw averaging 23°F (-5°C). In summer it is hotter inland, with July temperatures in Warsaw averaging 66°F (19°C).
Rain can be expected throughout the year, particularly in the southern mountains, and Poland is frequently cloudy and foggy. The best time to visit Poland is during the warmer months of spring and summer, between May and August. Early autumn, in September and October, is also a pleasant and mild time of year to visit. The peak tourist season is in July and August but travellers should note that many Poles take their annual leave at this time, making the tourist hotspots in Krakow and Sopot overcrowded in the height of summer. Budget travellers should consider travelling outside of the peak season.
The official currency is Zloty (PLN), divided into 100 groszy. Poland still uses cash more frequently than visitors might expect, and it is sometimes difficult to use credit cards in remote areas. Credit cards are, however, accepted in places frequented by tourists. ATMs or Bankomats are available in major towns and cities. Money (preferably US Dollars or Euros) can be exchanged in the cities and larger towns at banks, hotels or bureaux de change called 'kantors', which offer the best rates. Banks are open Monday to Friday from 10am to 6pm and some are open on Saturday until 1pm.
The national language is Polish; however, English is widely understood in tourist areas.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. The standard two-pin European style plugs are used.
US nationals: US nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period. Passports must be valid for three months beyond period of intended stay.
UK nationals: British passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject', 'British Overseas Territories Citizen', and Identity Cards issued by Gibraltar must be valid for the duration of intended stay. British passports with any other endorsement must be valid for three months beyond period of intended stay. Visas are not required for British Citizens, British Overseas Territories Citizens, British Subjects, and those with Identity Cards issued by Gibraltar. Those with any other endorsement in their passports can stay in the country visa-free for up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
CA nationals: Canadian nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period. Passports must be valid for three months beyond period of intended stay.
AU nationals: Australians require a passport valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
ZA nationals: South African passport holders require a visa for travel to Poland. Passports must be valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a passport valid on arrival, but no visa is necessary.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay. A visa is not needed for up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
A passport valid for at least three months after period of intended stay is needed for those who require a visa. Generally, visa exempt nationals must have a passport valid for period of intended stay (other than EEA nationals). The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option that allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all.
There are few health risks associated with travel to Poland. Those visiting forested areas are advised to seek medical advice about inoculations for tick borne encephalitis, and take tick bite prevention measures due to the presence of Lyme disease. Vaccinations may be recommended for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid, although those eating only in restaurants and hotels can safely disregard the typhoid vaccination.
Poland has a reciprocal health agreement with the UK and most EU countries, whose citizens are entitled to low-cost emergency medical treatment on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), but full health insurance cover is still advised. Medical facilities and standards of health care are good, but not many nurses or doctors speak English. If you take prescription medication along, be sure to bring a signed and dated letter from a doctor detailing what it is and why it is needed.
Tipping is expected in restaurants in Poland and 15 percent is the standard for good service. In restaurants, when your bill is collected, saying 'thank you' signals to the waiter/waitress that they can keep the change. Tipping is not the norm in hotels across Poland, but taxis, tours and spas generally expect no less than 10 percent tip for good service.
Tourists should be alert to the risk of robbery in tourist areas in large cities in Poland, particularly in the vicinity of hotels, markets and banks. Vigilance against theft should also be exercised at central railway stations, as well as on overnight long distance trains, and when travelling on public transport between Warsaw's Frederic Chopin Airport and central Warsaw.
Avoid walking alone at night. Tourist sites, areas near big hotels, money exchange facilities and ATMs are popular with thieves. Having said that, visits to Poland are usually trouble free, and the precautions travellers should take are merely the safety measures advised for cities all over the world.
Family is incredibly important and Polish people may often rely very heavily on their close-knit inner circles - as a result, outsiders may often be treated at first with caution. Jay-walking is an offence in Poland, and is punishable with a fine. Public drunkenness is frowned upon: police will take drunk people to drying out clinics until sober and the person will be charged for the stay.
Poland has an interesting mix of the old and the new, and this is apparent in the business world too. Women can expect a kiss on the hand rather than a handshake from the older generation and one can expect to be warmly offered drinks during meetings; it is impolite to refuse. Although the Polish are hospitable and friendly, business is still conducted formally. Punctuality is important, dress should be formal and conservative (a suit and tie are the norm) and business cards are exchanged. Use titles and last names unless otherwise indicated. English is widely spoken, though attempting some basic Polish phrases will be appreciated. Business hours in Poland are traditionally 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and lunch breaks are not a given as they are often unpaid.
The international access code for Poland is +48. Pre-paid sim cards can be bought in order to avoid international roaming fees, and wifi is available in most towns.
Travellers to Poland over 17 years, arriving from non-EU countries, do not have to pay duty on 250 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g tobacco; 1 litre wine and 1 litre spirits; cosmetics and medicines for personal use; gifts up to the value of €430. Travellers to Poland arriving from within the EU do not have to pay duty on 800 cigarettes or 200 cigars or 1kg smoking tobacco; 10 litres spirits, 90 litres wine and 110 litres beer. Prohibited items include birds and poultry arriving from countries infected with avian influenza. The export of all articles of artistic, historic or cultural value are subject to special regulations.
Polish National Tourist Office, Warsaw: +48 (0)22 536 7070 or www.pot.gov.pl.
Polish Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 499 1700.
Polish Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7291 3520.
Polish Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 0468.
Polish Embassy, Sydney, Australia: +61 2 6272 1000.
Polish Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 430 2632.
Polish Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 283 0855.
Polish Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 499 7844.
United States Embassy, Warsaw: +48 22 504 2000.
British Embassy, Warsaw: +48 22 311 0000.
Canadian Embassy, Warsaw: +48 22 584 3100.
Australian Embassy, Warsaw: +48 22 521 3444.
South African Embassy, Warsaw: +48 22 622 1031.
Irish Embassy, Warsaw: +48 22 564 2200.
New Zealand Embassy, Warsaw: +48 22 521 0500.
A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Monument, the Salt Mine at Wieliczka is a unique underground complex built in the Middle Ages. The series of labyrinthine tunnels, chambers, galleries, and underground lakes are spread over nine levels and reach a depth of more than 1,000ft (304m), but visitors are restricted to a tour of three levels. Centuries-old passageways contain huge crystalline caverns and carved chapels. The highlight is the Blessed Kinga Chapel where everything is carved from salt, dedicated to the patron saint of Polish mine workers. The world's first subterranean therapeutic sanatorium is situated 656ft (200m) below the surface, and makes use of the saline air for the treatment of asthma.
The Auschwitz concentration camp forms the largest cemetery in the world, preserved as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust during the Second World War. Visitors can obvserve the structures, ruins, and gas chambers, while visiting exhibits at the museum. The buildings contain displays of photographs and piles of personal articles of the victims, including battered suitcases, and thousands of spectacles, hair, and shoes collected from the bodies. The sheer scale of the tragedy can be experienced at the Birkenau Camp, with a viewing platform to give some perspective over the vast fenced-in area. It was the principal camp where the extermination of millions took place, a chillingly efficient set-up with rows of barracks and four colossal gas chambers and ovens. Purpose-built railway tracks lead through the huge gateway along which victims were transported from the ghettos to the camp in crowded box-like carts. Taking a guided tour of the camps is the best way to fully comprehend what you are seeing and a tour takes at least three and a half hours. Visitors should try and book a place on one of the various guided tours at least two weeks before visiting - see the official website below for details.
While most tourists to Poland usually content themselves with the wonderful cultural experiences in the old towns of Warsaw and Krakow, a trip into the Polish countryside can be an equally rewarding enterprise. The Bieszczady Mountains run through the extreme southeast of Poland, near the Ukraine and Slovakia borders. A land of snow-capped peaks, tall pine trees, and vast green meadows, the Bieszczady region boasts hiking and mountain bike trails which wind through a rich array of native flora. Found in the UNESCO East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, animal lovers should look out for lynxes, bears, and wolves.
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